Thursday, October 19, 2017

October 14, 2017, 8:01pm

“Follow the light and travel safely.”

I said these words to my world-traveler grandma last Saturday night after I told her I loved her and kissed her waxy, unresponsive cheek for the last time. I hadn’t planned to say those words and I’m still not entirely sure where they came from. But within 30 minutes, she was gone.

I had arrived at the Sacramento hospital almost exactly one week earlier to the hour. Grandma had had a stroke four days prior as she was meeting with an electrician to discuss repairs on a rental property.

Yes, my 92-year-old grandma was still working as a real estate agent with five more years left on the license she renewed near her 90th birthday. I still remember how she almost contained her confusion and disdain 15 years ago when I told her Rob and I were retiring before our 40th birthdays. Although “tired” often described Grandma, “retired” never, ever would.

Classic Working Grandma pose

Two days after I arrived at Grandma’s bedside, my dad and his sister made the profoundly difficult yet profoundly clear decision to take their mother off life support. Her pain, discomfort, and frustration were obvious. Although she could not make a sound, Grandma’s eyes screamed for relief from the hell she was trapped in.

That morning, before the decision was made, I arrived in ICU to find Grandma resting alone. My parents had not yet arrived for the day and my aunt was meeting with a doctor in another area of the hospital.

I went to Grandma’s right side – the side that was still moving occasionally – and held her hand as I said hello. She squeezed my hand in response. Although Grandma had been moving her right leg and her right arm and hand for several days, it wasn’t always clear that the movements were voluntary. Every once in awhile she could move her extremities on command but those moments were fleeting.

But this moment was not.

Sensing something was different, I asked Grandma a few yes-no questions, repeated them, and asked them in different ways to confirm she actually was communicating with me via her hand squeezing.

When I was certain we were talking, I embraced this extraordinary gift with everything I had.

I thanked Grandma again for her example, her legacy, her lessons. I thanked her again for inviting me to accompany her to Istanbul while I was in college. I told her again how amazing it was to hear all those guests at her 90th birthday party speak about what an honorable, trustworthy, integrity-fueled businesswoman she was and how I loved bragging that she was my grandma.

And then I told her that her important documents had been found and her wishes were known. Through a series of pointed, painfully real questions that I never thought I would ask another human being, Grandma gave her family permission…if not a direct order…to let her go.

For the next five days we waited. Sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently. Sometimes through tears, sometimes through blank stares of numbness. Sometimes bathed in laughter of stories, sometimes drenched in exhaustion and confusion.

For days…which really felt like months…I had been asking God to please let Grandma pass in a whisper. Just a simple last breath. No pain, no struggle, no sound. Just one last breath. And all glory to God, that is exactly how she left this world. I couldn’t be more grateful.

I am also grateful that I got to know my aunt. We are only eight years apart yet our lives have never really intersected very much. But she and I ended up being a pretty spectacular team as we held vigil in Grandma’s hospital room and allowed each other sleep and showers. In the midst, we shared our lives and our truths. We cried, we laughed, we hugged. And on Saturday night in the final hours of the bar of the Crowne Plaza hotel, with Grandma’s favorite vodka tonic with a twist of lime, we toasted.

Back at home, I’ve spent the last few days decompressing and trying to grasp what I just experienced. I have cried a fair bit, but the majority of my tears have been more from gratitude than sadness. Gratitude for Grandma’s life, the memories, what I learned from her, the parts of her that I am just like.

I suspect more will reveal itself over time, but at this moment I know Grandma lives on in me in a handful of ways. She gave me stubbornness and independence. She gave me thick wavy hair and deep-set eyes. She gave me a reluctance to accept being told I can’t do something and a fire to prove I can. She gave me a complete disinterest in cooking and a proclivity for keeping foodstuffs way past their expiration dates. She gave me a love for travel and a desire to explore and experience. According to multiple nurses, she gave me youthful skin that belies my actual age. She gave me the complexity of being decidedly adult while also embracing being downright goofy.

I was two months old.  When Rob first saw this
photo a few years ago, he said, "So that's where you
get your eyes."

Not every family would think this an appropriate
photo op on a woman's 80th birthday.  It's one of
my favorite photos of Grandma and her menfolk.

My mom and Grandma modeling their
thrift store treasures.

Grandma was a feisty, classy lady who always had her nails done and couldn’t stand an untucked shirt. She lived in Japan and Turkey thanks to the Navy, and travelled the world thanks to boundless energy. She visited every continent, including Antarctica to see the penguins when she was 79.

Until the day she had a stroke, Grandma drove and texted and Facetimed. She did her best to understand computers and keep her Quicken files updated. She played checkers with her great grandchildren and posed for pictures with her favorites from “Dancing with the Stars.” She loved San Francisco and Dairy Queen and paused each day for ice cream the way Brits take time for tea.

Artem was reportedly quite swoon-worthy.

Grandma was only 42 when I came along. She had a husband, her own real estate business, and an almost 8-year-old daughter. She wasn’t quite ready to be a grandma; can’t say I blame her. When she was widowed without warning just eight years later, her focus became even more about work and survival. Can't say I blame her for that either.

I was 10 days old.  Note Grandma's business
attire and two purses bursting with paperwork.
No doubt a phone was ringing in the background.

Our relationship wasn’t typical; she definitely was not a textbook grandma. I remember I spent my 13th birthday in a banquet hall at an awards ceremony honoring her work as a realtor. I opened my gift from her the next day. It was an electric pencil sharpener. As much I really wanted earrings to go with my newly pierced ears, I have to admit I used that piece of practical office equipment for years.

Grandma and I finally started to get to know each other when I was in college and she invited me to join her on that trip to Istanbul to visit my aunt who was stationed near there. Other grandparents take their grandkids to Disneyland; I got to go to Turkey.

We spent the occasional holiday together or passed through town and shared a meal. We exchanged cards and letters and sometimes a phone call. She was an intensely private lady so it was hard to get close to her, yet I have a hunch I understood her better than she suspected.

I try to make it a priority to tell the people in my life how much I appreciate them. Although words would not have gone unspoken if Grandma had passed immediately from the stroke a few weeks ago, I will forever be grateful for the extra time I was given to say goodbye to her. And for those 15 minutes alone in ICU while she squeezed my hand and “talked” to me for the last time.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Dizzy from the swirling

Emotion-fueled, cathartic writing in the lonely wee hours is always a bit raw if not dangerous. This is as much a warning to me as it is to you.

It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that it’s been less than a month since my last blog posting. It feels like two lifetimes ago.

I wrote that September entry from a spectacular hotel in Lake Louise, Canada that we are unlikely to ever splurge on again. We had planned to spend two nights in rustic luxury before heading on to Banff and then training westward back to Vancouver, BC. But life started to swirl in ways I didn’t want to imagine.

Rob and I cancelled the rest of our trip, rerouted to Calgary, stopped briefly at Woodhaven for about 3 hours to reload suitcases, and were greeted at the Boise airport by my mom at an hour mostly past all of our bedtimes. It was quite a long day.

For the next week, the three of us watched my dad defy the odds and confound the doctors. He responded to medical treatment and fervent prayers with head spinning speed. He was in the hospital for less than two weeks. By all accounts, he was supposed to be in ICU longer than that, assuming he made it out alive. The fact that Dad is doing so well now is the closest I’ve ever been to witnessing a miracle.

So that’s the good news. The incredible, astounding, blessed good news. And I’m trying with all my might not to lose sight of it. Because life has been swirling at vortex speeds and I’m getting rather weary of it. I have the wadded Kleenexs to prove it.

In the 21 days since Rob and I returned home from Boise, still celebrating my dad’s survival, the following wet blankets have been thrown on the party:

  • The day after we got home, I had an oral surgery involving a bone graft, stitches, and instructions to only eat soft food until the stitches are removed. With any luck, that glorious day is tomorrow…following three very long weeks of pudding, mashed potatoes, applesauce, smoothies, ice cream, and soup. I realized today that I haven’t had any red meat or spinach in three weeks. My money’s on anemia.

  • Our boy cat has digestive issues and despite changing his food, adding water bowls, and furtively mixing laxatives into his food, he is still not a happy litter box user. Back to the vet we go.

  • My new walking shoes have proven to be the source of annoying foot pain, prompting anxiety about the return of the most unpleasant plantar fasciitis from several years ago. After 3 hours in two different shoes stores trying unsuccessfully to find replacements, I have resigned myself to wearing my old kicks and enduring the shin splints for a while longer. At this point I’d rather have achy shins than achy feet.

  • My credit card number was highjacked while we were in Canada. The thieves had quite a joy ride with it including spas, hotels on both coasts, Airbnb, and something called Stars Consulting in Nevada. Ewwww.

  • The one and only tree in our yard next to our (now unusable) hot tub is infested with an active and popular hornet’s nest that nobody can locate. Best guess is the nest is inside the tree trunk. There’s a really good chance Rob gets to play with a chainsaw when the temperatures finally drop enough to make the nest go dormant. I’m telling myself I never really liked that tree anyway.

  • A dear and beloved elderly lady from our church died. The family asked me to write her obituary. It was an honor and a privilege and sucked big time.

  • Two getaway trips that were planned in an effort to try to salvage some of that Vacation Vibe we didn’t really get had to be scrapped due to other obligations. Golly, I can’t wait to retire someday.

  • For the first time ever…and now fully embracing all that comes with having silver hair…I am the reluctant yet grateful owner of a Preparation H product. (Hey, I'm just keeping it real here. Too real? Let's just say I am reallly looking forward to being able to eat spinach again.)

  • I spent about 8 hours in the ER with a friend who was showing signs of a stroke, and another 2 hours with a friend who was getting a steroid shot for some nerve pain. I am becoming far too familiar with hospital procedures, waiting rooms, and beef broth.

  • And the capper: tonight my dad called to tell me my feisty 92-year-old grandma was being life flighted to a stroke care center in California. She was apparently talking with an electrician about a rental property (yes, she is still working as a real estate agent. It was announced at her 90th birthday party that she had renewed her license for another 5 years. Did I mention feisty?) when something terrible happened and she stopped breathing. Last conversation suggested the hemorrhaging is still not under control. Family is converging. I may or may not get those stitches out tomorrow after all.

All that and then the unfathomable tragedy in Las Vegas has me sad, weepy, overwhelmed, confused, and unable to get the sleep I so desperately need. I feel like a punching bag whose stuffing is spilling out in a mess on the floor. I’m trying so hard to be strong and present and optimistic. But instead I feel raw and numb and deflated. And so very tired.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Someday is now in Lake Louise

Well, it’s been a memorable day.

We started off the morning in a nice tour bus in Jasper, trekking southward to Lake Louise. We traveled the entire day along the Columbia Icefield Parkway. I have a t-shirt to prove it!

The Icefield Parkway is apparently one of National Geographic’s Top Ten Scenic Roadways in the world. While I could only really take in a small fraction of it, I would say I agree.

The road goes through a gorge with more of those gigantic mountains on either side. However, these mountains are a bit different in that they are sprinkled with glaciers. Glaciers that you can see without binoculars. Glaciers that you can see even through relatively dense smoke.

Yep, our Super Travel Weather Luck disappeared today. Although Jasper was rather clear, the further south we traveled, the more smoky the skies got. I had to take out my contacts because my eyes were burning, it was that bad. While it smelled kinda nice, like a wood burning fire (because, duh, it is), the whole breathing and seeing thing was sort of compromised.

Nevertheless, the mountains were still spectacular in their own way. Instead of multi-colored and multi-dimensional, the hazy white skies turned the mountains into an Ansel Adams photograph. The mountain landscape was black and white and two dimensions; no real way to sense depth through the smoke.

We stopped at a few glacial lakes, the ones that look turquoise from the “rock flour” that dribbles into them from the rocky valleys surrounding them. I was mesmerized to discover the beautiful blue still came through the heavily filtered light. Playing with all sorts of low-light, high-light, expressive, dynamic settings on my camera resulted in a few interesting shots. But for the most part, I think I will just be left with the memories of the gigantic mountainy silhouettes.

The highlight of the day – even more so because it wasn’t hugely smoky yet – was riding a snowcoach up onto a glacier and then having about 30 minutes to gingerly walk around on it. Although Rob and I have each tip toed on glaciers in other places, this is the first time we went on one together. And definitely the first time we got there riding an enormous million dollar snow tank.

The snowcoach was at times bumpy and lurchy but blessedly clung to the ice and a 32% slope with confidence. It took about 7 minutes to get onto the ice. Although there were staked ropes indicating safe areas to stick to, I was honestly amazed so many folks at least two decades my senior gave ice walking a try and did it without falling! It was indeed slick in places, and there were little puddles of melting glacier all over the place, but holding onto Rob, I never felt unsteady.

We were also told to bring empty water bottles with us so we could fill them up with fresh glacier water to sip. Rob was my hero as he straddled a small, slick gully to collect the water for us.

It was the freshest-tasting water I have ever had. It didn’t taste like anything, making it interesting to realize that all other water I drink either out of bottles or taps actually has a taste. However, as the icy cold water warmed up, it developed a rocky, minerally flavor. We didn’t quite finish our bottles because we weren’t sure we liked our beverage so…earthy. So note to self: if I ever get the opportunity to drink glacier water again, I will finish it quickly.

The second highlight of the day was seeing another bear. On the left again! This one was right along the side of the Parkway and its presence was announced by the stream of cars, campers, and motorcyclists that were stopped on the side of the road with cameras all facing the same way. This black bear was quite a bit smaller than the one we saw from the train, but it was just as happy and just as close.

What was particularly astounding, however, was how many people were standing outside just a matter of feet and yards from the bear, watching it munch a tree and taking photos of it. Our bus driver noted that the bear could jump 30 feet in a split second and be on top of any one of the unprotected selfie-takers before they had a chance to focus their phone camera and get that prized photo of their final moments. People are so interesting!

We are now tucked away in a fantastically lovely log cabin hotel on a river in Lake Louise. We haven’t seen the lake yet; partly due to the smoke and partly due to it being up some elevation from us. We aren’t sure we will see it this trip. It depends on the cab driver tomorrow morning.

We are unfortunately cutting our vacation very short as of tomorrow morning. Just before we lost cell service for the entire day, my mom was able to get through to my cell phone and share news that my dad is in the hospital ICU due to breathing difficulties. So we are heading to Calgary tomorrow – hopefully via Banff so we can at least catch a glimpse – and then onto Woodhaven for a few hours to reshuffle luggage before heading to Idaho.

It was twists and turns of life just like this that prompted us to take this trip in the first place; no guarantees that we have “someday.” We do hope to see this part of the world again, hopefully without smoke and perhaps on our own schedule with our own transportation.

I do have more I want to write and share about the train experience; we are both definitely sad we will be missing three more days of the fantastic service, food, views, and fun of the Rocky Mountaineer train that we planned to experience from Banff back to Vancouver.

Maybe “someday” will come again.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Someday is now in Jasper National Park!

Oh my goodness, so much to catch up on!

We are quite enjoying this rail travel thing but ooooh doggies, the days are long and the mornings come quickly. Not much time for blogging.

We have trained two full days (like 12 hours plus each) since Whistler and rolled to a stop in Jasper National Park in Alberta last night. It was the end of the first of three segments to our trip. Meaning we said good-bye to our lovely train hostesses Laura and Corrina (who taught us the word “ticketyboo” which we all laughed at until we realized it means the same as the equally sensical “hunky dory”). We wished travel farewells to Aussie aisle-mates Bruce and John, and we got ready to be away from the rails and settle in one spot for a bit. Changing hotels and the associated room numbers each night has brought some confused weariness.

The scenery from the train has been magnificent. We could not have asked for better weather – the skies are clear and the sun is bright. We’ve been told by a few locals that our time in their various spots has been some of the best weather they’ve had all summer. Indeed, we were just the third train in three months that has been able to make the trip we just completed. Due to wildfires that jumped the tracks and lots of resulting smoky skies, all the earlier voyages were disappointingly by bus. We are remembering to count our blessings.

Our first full day on the train two days ago started in Whistler and puttered to a long-anticipated stop in Quesnel. We were delayed about two hours due to some rail traffic and heat.

It was so warm outside (low 90s), the metal train rails ran the risk of expanding and filling in gaps in the tracks designed for this purpose. However, the expansion isn’t always even; sometimes there are little humps and sways in the tracks. So to avoid inconveniences…like derailments…train speeds were restricted. We therefore followed the Mighty Fraser River veeeeeery slowly for quite some time.

We started in the mountain, went through some deep river gorges, and climbed to the high alpine desert. The late afternoon sun lit up lovely farmy plateaus in warm gold light, and we said goodbye to the sun along ranchland. All the while eating gourmet food and sipping lovely Okanagan Valley wine. It was all rather decadent and a far cry from our more typical Wheat Thins and Wendy’s-infused road trips.

Quesnel was exactly as anticipated: a place to spend the night. I was sad, though, that we arrived too late for the town to show us what it had to offer. The people who greeted us at the dark train station and the hotel we super duper friendly and loved their little lumber hamlet with a passion. So many smiles and thank yous and waves. Our bus driver from the train station to our hotel – a route that we truly could have walked – was stretched as far as he could get away with so as to explain why he loved his job and his home and hoped that we would all come back some day and see it in the daylight.

Quesnelians are rather proud of their painted
fire hydrants around town.  I was rather
proud I got this shot in as much focus as I
did given the sleep deprivation.

Yesterday’s route was Quesnel to Jasper, crossing both the province and time zone boundaries in the process. We are now in the Mountain time zone in the lovely province of Alberta. We will be here a few more days for Segment 2 Adventures.

The scenery highlights yesterday were wildlife and Rocky Mountains. Since we left Whistler, we have seen osprey, a big horn ram and his harem, and a mama moose (reportedly with baby but I didn’t see it)…all pretty close to the chugging train. I was also pretty excited to see hundreds of bright pink sockeye salmon spawning in the river.

The salmon are the (conveniently) salmony-colored blobs.

However, the highlight sighting was yesterday when someone yelled “BEAR ON THE LEFT!!”

I happened to be sitting on the left side and saw the most beautifully healthy and stout black bear lumbering through some low grasses less than 50 feet from the train tracks! OMG!!

I’m proud to say I don’t have a photo of the beauty. Instead I chose to savor the moment instead of wasting it getting my camera to focus. But believe me when I say it was a large and happy bear, so much closer than I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo, and pretty dang awesome.

What I did take lots of photos of, though, was mountains. Soaring, immense, hunks of rock scraping the unusually cloudless blue sky. Mountains like in Alaska, where they are so enormous you can’t possibly photograph them nor truly comprehend them. That didn’t keep me from trying, however.

It's impossible to see here how gigantic these mountains are!

I have seen the American Rockies. The Canadian ones seem somehow even more extraordinarily tall even though Canada’s highest peak (Mount Robson at just shy of 13,000 feet) is shorter than several in the US.

We were told this peak of Mount Robson is usually only
visible about 30 days per year.  WOW!

Rob and I discussed this while enjoying some Merlot because, well, we had time.

We concluded the difference in my mountain height perception is a result of the concept of “relief.” Relief in geographical terms is the difference between the highest and the lowest elevations in an area. So while the US has mountains in the Rockies that are taller than 13,000 feet, I have viewed them from a higher elevation than where I’ve been hanging out on the train (currently about 3,000 feet). So these somewhat smaller Canadian mountains look bigger because I am seeing them from a lower elevation. Make sense? If not, might I recommend some Sumac Ridge Merlot to help clear things up?

We arrived in Jasper last night well after dark so we weren’t sure what we would wake up to this morning. Ummm… it is pretty gorgeous here.

The town of Jasper is unique because it is wholly within a national park. However, you wouldn’t really know it; it looks and feels like a mountainy tourist town complete with ice cream shops and tacky souvenir stands, white haired tourists with fanny packs and patchouli-scented 20-somethings with backpacks.

Jasper is surrounded by more of those immense mountains, giving it something of the feel of Jackson Hole, Wyoming but not quite so jaggedy. Elk are common residents so there are actual warning signs as well as tell-tale ones, like when a bunch of cars are pulled off to the side of the road and lots of cameras are pointed in the same direction.

My One Wildlife Photo (well, aside from the salmony blobs)

Our morning today was spent on a short tour to a lake and then a small canyon. I was honestly a little ho-hum about the idea; sleep sounded much more intriguing than an 8:50am dressed-and-ready start time in a new time zone.

But the lake proved spectacularly reflective. Our guide got us there just before a light breeze picked up making this photograph no longer possible just a half hour later.

Pyramid Mountain.  The reddish brown trees are not early Fall.
Sadly they are trees infested with mountain pine beetles.
They have been pretty destructive around here for several
years despite making for rather colorful photos. 

Next we went to a place called Malign Canyon, pronounced “mah-LEEN” even though it was aptly named for the definition of “evil in nature or effect; malevolent.” While today it was one of the most interesting and unique…and narrow…canyons I have ever seen, trying to navigate its smoothed-out rock caves and sudden waterfalls in a canoe would have been crazy-making.

We were given an hour to walk along some trails around the canyon. I couldn’t believe we were given so much time in what looked like a small park. I anticipated I would be browsing the nearby gift store for 45 minutes.

Instead, I wish we had had at least three more hours so we could have taken a much longer walk down to the bottom of the canyon. Although the canyon was narrower than a football field, it was super deep and had the most interesting rock formations.

Learning another new word today, I discovered I was seeing evidence of karst topography. Googling, that officially means “a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.” In other words, soft rocks like limestone get slowly carved away by water and result in really cool caves and waterfalls.

I was so fascinated by the curvy, swirly rock walls, I forgot that I have knee and back problems and trekked down the declining trail with my only worry being the time. We got as far as anyone on our bus did, even if I did overhear some whipper snapper not on our tour refer to me and Rob and another guy as “the old people.” I was tempted to throw my hat at him but then he would have seen my hair and been vindicated.

"Old People" rocking the Malign Canyon Trail

We made it back to the bus in time to get a geological book at the gift store and for me to tend to my injury. Yes, I should have known better than to hike down and up that canyon with such confidence. Dang fence caught my thumb and broke my nail. My back and knee, however, are doing splendidly so far. THANK YOU, SURGEONS!!

We grabbed some lunch in town. After all the fancy meals on the train, we were craving something more “normal.” We asked the shuttle driver for the best pizza place in town and had far too much fun having a Canadian Bacon pizza in Canada. Fun fact: here they call it “back bacon” which sounded really wrong and kinda gross. However, we determined it thicker and sweeter and better than the stuff we attach the nationality to in the U.S.

As either as sign of age or maturity, we decided to forego more touring today and instead decided to enjoy the rest of the afternoon relaxing, reading, blogging, and waiting for the shade to envelope the chairs outside out hotel room. Perhaps we’ll go find a nice glass of Merlot.

We continue Segment 2 tomorrow with a bus and touring southward. Stay tuned!

Lovely lake near our hotel.  What a beautifully relaxing afternoon!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Someday is now in Whistler!

Earlier this year, as and after we watched the lives of friends and family take unexpected turns, Rob and I made a decision. Seeing undeniable evidence that none of us is guaranteed “someday” or even “tomorrow,” we decided it was time to start taking those trips and having those experiences that we have long dreamed about but always figured we would get around to doing “someday.”

The first on our “Someday is Now” trip list is one that Rob has talked about pretty much as long as I’ve known him. He…as are most of the menfolk in his family…is a train guy. He loves trains and train travel. One of our first dates included a visit to a favorite train station so Rob could share with me one of his most special places.

We’ve taken several day trips on trains…some pretty long days in fact. But we’ve never done any overnight rail trips. At first because we couldn’t afford the time or the fare, and then later because sleeping and showering on a train doesn’t seem particularly back friendly.

Riding a train through Canada – especially the Canadian Rockies – has nevertheless been one of Rob’s dreams. And we are now finally doing it.

Learning a couple of years ago that there’s a rail company that lets you ride an excursion train by day and enjoy the stability, space, and king-sized, back-supportive mattress of a hotel by night was a game changer.

And so this blog entry is coming to you from the comfort of a lovely bed in a lovely hotel in the especially lovely Whistler, British Columbia. We trained here from Vancouver, BC this morning. We arrived around noon and got to spend the rest of the day and night exploring on our own. So far, it is seeming a fantastic way to travel.

We spent most of yesterday walking around Vancouver after we got situated in our hotel. We had some messy but tasty crepes at a sidewalk cafĂ© for lunch, and killed some time in a fancypants department store while their jewelry desk replaced my watch battery (yes, I still wear a watch…especially when travelling outside my cellphone’s normal coverage area. I’ve learned the hard way that cell phones aren’t always reliable international clocks.).

We happened upon a very chatty and knowledgeable Lookout Tower employee who offered to give us a historical tour as we veeeeery slowly made our way around the observation platform 553 feet above Vancouver. What was advertised as a 20-minute tour turned into more like an hour. But it was truly one of the best tours I’ve had of Vancouver, BC in my five visits there.

Bright sun backlighting makes selfies pretty tricky
Nevertheless, that's Vancouver BC behind us

After dinner, we plopped in our hotel room and actually opened the window to the noisy city street below us because in amongst the car horns and bus engines and police sirens was the most lovely serenade by a street performer.

He was a violinist with an amplifier and a dog. He stood on the corner in front of Tiffany’s jewelry store and played the violin with enough expertise, I started to suspect he actually plays for the Vancouver Symphony and just practices on street corners for kicks and extra cash. His set was over promptly at 9:00pm, unfortunately well before I had hope he and his wafting violin would help lull me to sleep.

Our train tour started this morning at the godawful hour of 6:05am. That’s when we needed to have our luggage available to be picked up. We are not morning people; we were hoping the early start would be worth it. So far, thankfully, YES!

After dodging lots of closed roads and Vancouver police getting overtime pay and keeping our eyes peeled for Ryan Reynolds as the filming of a movie called “Dead Pool 2” was being filmed on the street outside our hotel, we finally got settled into Seats 37 and 38 on the Rocky Mountaineer train. WHOO HOO, CHOO CHOO!

We're awake...sort of.

Although we’ve only spent about 4 hours on the train so far, it seems like a splendid way to travel aside from the early morning departures.

The seats are super comfy with almost as many buttons to play with as a pedicure massage chair. Except unlike a pedicure chair, the Mountaineer chair does not make my teeth rattle and make me fear my titanium spine might vibrate loose. THIS chair has adjustable lumbar support and three levels of heat and a motorized footrest. For the first time in 15+ years of lugging around my trusty and bulky lumbar travel pillow, I don’t need it. OMG!

Ooops, sorry. Chairs are quite central to one’s life when one has chronic back pain. Perhaps not everyone finds the Rocky Mountaineer Goldleaf Chair quite as monumental as I do. I’ll move on. But did I mention…O M G, heated lumbar!!!

We enjoyed a very scenic morning slowly chugging through mountains and a river gorge, past a fjord and a small mining village. The skies were clear, the sun was bright, the cameras were ever-present.

We were served mouthwatering cinnamon scones, a hearty breakfast of quiche and bacon and sausage and pancakes, and as much beverage of any sort that we desired. Can’t say I remember the last time I sipped on Chardonnay at 11am but hey, Someday is Now!

We arrived at our first station stop at about noon. I didn’t really know what to expect from Whistler, BC other than knowing it is a ski resort and was the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics for all things mountain snow sport.

What I know now is that Whistler is remarkably beautiful and even though the Olympics are long gone, there is a youthful, athletic, energetic vibe here. The vibe makes it very easy to imagine what it must have felt like when the town and the Olympic Village were bursting with competitive skiers and lugers and tobogganers.

Whistler was built for pedestrians. There are signs and walking paths and street lights and orienting maps all over the place. The buildings still feel new and are filled with shops and restaurants and specialty stores catering to bicyclists and skateboarders and hikers and skiers.

Walking around, the place felt like Disneyland without the rides. Or, rather, the rides were all up on the mountain. Even in the summer, without snow, Whistler offers mountain biking and dirt biking and white water rafting and hiking and lake swimming.

I swear I expected to see someone wearing Mouse ears

So naturally, Rob and I walked a lot, watched other people be all athletic and sportsy, and hoped to play miniature golf but got to the course too late. Boo!

We spent a good chunk of the day riding ski lifts and gondolas up to the top of Whistler Mountain, praising my coordination and strong knee to actually get on and off the lifts without requiring apologies or emergency stops.

Ski lift selfie!! I was pretty pleased with how well this
turned out considering I have zero experience taking
photos while on ski lifts

The gondola is called Peak2Peak.  It goes between the two
main mountain peak ski area in Whistler and is the longest
unsupported lift span in the world at almost 2 miles.
I chose not to dwell on this fun fact while on it.

We had lunch at the top of a ski run. The altitude made us both a little dizzy but we nevertheless essentially finished our heap of poutine (a Canadian snack we discovered in Montreal several years ago that, when done well, is sooo worth the clogged arteries: French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. OMG. Hey, don’t judge me…Someday is Now!). We purposely left one fry uneaten just so we could claim we couldn’t finish the “snack.”

I forgot to mention the beef barbacoa we opted to add on
top.  Please note the zero calorie beverage I chose to pair with
this vacation delicacy.

4.5 miles later, sweaty and slightly sunburned from exploring all of Whistler that our feet would allow, we have called it a night and are preparing for quite a long day on the train tomorrow.

We are to be down in the lobby at 6:45am (we get to sleep in!) and are heading for a town called Quesnel. I keep thinking it’s Quiznos, and then I heard a local called it Quin-nell, so I have no idea how to pronounce it, nor what to expect when we get there. Our itinerary suggests it's mostly just a place to spend the night. Which is just fine with me. WHOO HOO CHOO CHOO with HOTELS!

REALLY hard to capture the beauty in a point-n-shoot

Monday, August 21, 2017

Total eclipse, oh my heart

When Rob told me about ten years ago that he wanted to see North America’s total solar eclipse in August 2017, I gamely said, “Sure! That sounds like fun.”

About five years ago, Rob told me he had decided we would go to the middle of Oregon, probably a town called Madras, to be in the path of totality. I had no idea where that was but I was totally up for finding out.

Two years ago, Rob got a little concerned. He wasn’t the only astronomical fan with his eye on Madras for the big Black Out. Hotels and motels were already selling out. Our eclipsing travel plan shifted to Idaho, near where my parents live, hoping that Portland’s airport would be more of a national draw than Boise’s.

Two days ago, with Highway Patrol predicting 10 hours to drive 90 miles, Rob and I packed provisions for car camping and headed out on our Eclipsing Adventure 2017.

Lawn chairs, two gallons of water, two coolers of food, a 5-gallon jug of gasoline, blankets, a little table, poles and clamps to set up a make-shift awning, Piglet. Everything we could think of that might come in handy if one were camped out in a ditch in the middle of Idaho or Oregon farmland.

Keeping a watchful eye on Google Maps traffic, we saw green lines turn to orange and red in three of our researched locations in totality’s center path. Plan F was determined last night. Brogan, Oregon or bust!

Note the local keeping watch on his tractor

We left my parents' house this morning at 5:00am Pacific time. We traveled country roads and were high-fiving the lack of traffic in the morning darkness save for farm trucks and rural school buses.

Online, Brogan promised a small market (nope) and more cows than people (yep). We hoped to pull into the market’s parking lot, mosey in to buy some snacks, and plead permission to camp out in their parking lot for the morning.

At about 6:40am, we rolled past the town sign and found a “city” park. Three cars were parked on the adjacent dirt road and two lawn chairs were occupied by a nice couple from Santa Cruz, California reading and enjoying some coffee. A man was sitting on the park’s lone bench. A woman was napping on a blanket nearby.

We could not have found a more perfect spot. We sat on cool, green grass with enough space around us not to feel crowded but with sufficient people to chat with and share anticipation.

And a porta-potty!! The park had a porta-potty! I was so excited to see that little wooden shack smelling of fresh disinfectant! And so grateful that I could give my parents back their “in case of emergency” bucket unused. Bring on the Gatorade!

I visited three times just cuz I could.
Brogan I love you!

In the middle of the park, Pat the Park Lady set up her eclipse-themed quilt. She was a local and was selling raffle tickets to win the quilt. The proceeds were to help support some of the families in town as well as the town’s efforts to revitalize their community center aka wooden grange thing that looked in need of some love.

Pat's the one in the middle.  She was hoping to raise $500.
By the time we left, I ended up hugging Pat good-bye.
What a sweet lady and what a sweet town!

Pat went around and greeted people, told people about her quilt, provided some tables of books and other yard-salesy items to browse, and otherwise was a hoot of an ambassador for her small town.

One nugget: “We don’t have a city hall or a grocery store. We don’t even have a town drunk, so we take turns.”

When asked by a Salt Lake visitor about cell service, Pat advised the frustrated out-of-towner to “…go down that road there to the left. There’s one spot where you can sometimes get cell service. Everyone here who has a cell phone goes to that spot. So good luck.”

The Salt Lake lady decided to join the rest of us in taking a blessed break from connectivity. She never went in search of The Magic Cell Spot.

Rob used the compass on his phone to figure out his best guess where the sun would be when totality hit. The few trees around us providing much appreciated shade were possible obstructions so I once again patted myself on the back for marrying such a handy engineer type.

We had about three hours to kill. We sat in our chairs, Rob read a little, I took a lot of pictures, we eavesdropped on Pat.

We showed the surprisingly impressed middle-school son of the Santa Cruz couple how our nail-hole-in-a-paper-plate eclipse-watcher worked. We brought it along in homage to the 1979 eclipse I remember experiencing in California as a 5th grader at about 80% totality. Back then there was no hype, no fancy glasses, no warnings of Trafficmaggedon. Just pin holes in paper on the playground with Mr. Watson.

Thanks for the supplies, Mom!

We talked to a dad and his two kids from Phoenix. They flew in just for the eclipse and were skipping school with pride and defiance.

One local couple showed up with their welding helmets.

Another local dad with an open-carry pistol on his hip wandered in about an hour before things got underway. He also had a welding helmet but no glasses for his two kids. A woman behind us from California sang out, “I’ve got some extra glasses for the kids if you want!”

After he graciously accepted the glasses, the local asked with bewilderment surveying his always empty park, “So how does anyone end up in Brogan?!?”

It was a very fair question. For not only were there about 50 people in the small park with us, there were another 50 or so up the hill a bit on a grassy patch outside their Local Volunteer Station. There were some serious telescopes and cameras up there, along with some millennial hippies with an electric guitar (which I thankfully never heard being played).

An older couple showed up with an well-used telescope, cardboard, and rail road ties as weights for a much more impressive pin-hole projector than our paper plate and foam core one. The husband in suspenders was busy setting things up as his wife turned her back to the sun and made circles with her fingers trying to enact a large pinhole.

That's often my stance, too, when my hubby is engineering.

Watching them for a bit I finally guessed, “Are you by any chance retired science teachers?”

The wife smiled broadly and pointed at her futzing husband, “It’s all him!”

“Are you folks locals?” I asked, since they had that small town farmy look to them.

“No, Wisconsin.”

I had to ask the same question as the pistol dad. Turns out the science teaching Wisconsin couple was very intentionally in the little park with us. The husband researched weather and probabilities of cloud cover. “As you go more east the chances of clouds increase.”

He also studied small roads and state routes in an effort to avoid crowded highways and interstates. “We didn’t want to be stuck in a big crowd of people or deal with a lot of traffic.”

Amen brother! And high-five to Rob’s Plan F! Is he brilliant or what? Rob I mean. Well, the science teacher too, I guess.

And then It Was Time.

At first the eclipsing moon was just a tiny blip of a sliver through our eclipse glasses kindly provided by Mt. Hood Territory and our Fair friend John. Thanks again, John!

Then we started to detect just the slightest bit of cooling from the 80-degree heat. A breeze picked up. The light started to dim just a tiny bit such that it felt more like 4:00pm than 10:00am. The light was more yellow, reminding me of my favorite time of day when the sun is low and everything is tinted gold.

I checked my glasses frequently, watching the little sphere of darkness crawl against the bright orange-yellow glow.

“It’s God’s fingernail!” Pat called out with delight and awe.

I expected the eclipse to go from left to right only because that’s how I read. It was the first surprise of many to find the darkness inching from right to left.

When the sun was about half covered, the air was undeniably cooler. I would have guessed it was 10 degrees cooler; subsequent research suggests it was closer to 3 degrees.

And then the light shifted to a tone and a color I have never seen before. It was yellowish but not gold. It was dim but not like dusk. It had a crispness and clarity and vividness I had never experienced. It didn’t feel or look real. It was almost like I was in a weird virtual reality game or a movie with a filter. It truly felt otherworldly.

Rob and I stood with our glasses on, staring at the orangey-yellow glow as the moon slipped fully into place. I had my hand on Rob’s shoulder to steady myself as I forced myself not to blink as totality became reality.

Knowing it was now safe to take off my glasses, I expected to see a yellow glow of the sun’s corona shimmering around the circumference of the moon. I thought it would be sort of pointy and uniform like how I drew the sun as a kid.

Instead, when I took off my glasses, I gasped. My mouth actually fell open. It was without a doubt the most astoundingly, profoundly beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.

The glow was not yellow; it was bright white. And it was not pointy and uniform; it was a dance of bright white gas shimmering like a bridal veil in a breeze. It was ethereal and delicate yet full of force and power. The sky around it was a deep dark blue unlike any I’ve seen in the sky before. The contrast was intense and shockingly beautiful. The sight was mesmerizing. I started to cry. It was overwhelming and so unexpected and forever redefined my understanding of “awesome” and “awe-inspiring.”

Trying to remember to be present, I forced my eyes away from the beautiful bright white light and looked around the horizon. It was sort of like sunset but not at all. There was some orange and red just above the horizon to the north, but the most prominent color was deeper dark blue.

Totality.  I hesitated to include this picture because it was
actually darker than the picture and the picture really
doesn't do the sight or experience justice.  But it is what
my trusty point-n-shoot gave me.

Doves that had been enjoying the morning in some large trees nearby were suddenly noisier. The breeze was gone and the air was still. I could still clearly see the people around me; it wasn’t dark like night. But what light was still left was crisper. I could see lines and shapes very acutely; there were not the normal soft edges that typically come with night light – a distinction that I didn’t know existed until today.

People were murmuring with excitement and awe around me. Nobody cheered, nobody clapped. Just a lot “WOW! s” and blinking eyes trying to comprehend what we were witnessing.

We were in totality for about two minutes. I could have stayed in that light, in that air, in that space, in that moment forever. It was peaceful and it was exciting. It was quiet and it was noisy. It was profound and it was simple. It was scientific and it was divine. It was spectacular.

And then the Diamond Ring happened.

Rob had mentioned it but I didn’t really understand what it was. I have now seen it.

It is that moment, that split second when the moon moves out of totality. There is a flash of bright white light on the edge of the sun when its light is suddenly, intensely visible again.

It was the brightest, whitest, most intense light I have ever seen. It indeed looked like the most sparkling sideways diamond ring unimaginable. I saw it for maybe one second before rushing my glasses back on to protect my eyes. But that flash, that bright white-blue explosion of light was a lifelong memory made. It and the dancing corona were worth the 10 years of planning and replanning, and the 11 hours of driving. So very very worth it.

Shared with permission from the photographer who took
this amazing photo in Antelope, OR during totality.
Thank you for being such a fantastic photographer,
Tyler Mode!!

The sunlight returned quickly. Within just a few minutes, people were packing up and heading to their cars. More than a few couples were embracing, grateful to have shared such an incredible moment with their most cherished person (at least that’s what I was feeling).

Thanks to Google Maps and a husband who is a traffic ninja, we managed to avoid any and all traffic on the 90-minute drive back to my parents’ house.

Rob could not have planned this day better. The location, the timing, the routes, the provisions. Everything was beyond what I expected and beyond what I breezily agreed to participating in ten years ago. It lived up to and outshone all of the hype.

Absolutely one of my most favorite days in my life.

I love my Eclipse Buddy!